When local epicures Sarah Barden and Seth Wraight took a food tour in Bar Harbour, Maine, it sparked one of those “bright idea!” light bulbs. Why couldn’t they give such a tour in their Ithaca home base, with its record number of restaurants per capita, oddball food history and unparalleled walkability? They tossed around the idea, drafted restaurateurs, put up a web site, and hit the streets – their business, Ithaca Is Foodies Culinary Tours, was born.
The audience for their venture, they agree, is everybody. “We’ve designed the tour to appeal to visitors and locals alike. You can go on vacation in your own town, learn something new, go to places you haven’t been. This is our way, too, to help introduce visitors and newcomers to Ithaca, and for them to meet some new people. It’s a good activity for families, groups of people, guests from out of town, students, and their parents,” said Barden. “Each tour,” she said, is a carefully curated experience designed to entertain, educate, and satisfy adventurous appetites.”
A couple of Saturdays back, an occasional drizzle couldn’t dampen the spirits of six hardy Ithaca foodies off on a culinary jaunt in Ithaca’s restaurant-rich downtown. Led by Wraight, who served as interlocutor, and Barden, stepping in as crowd wrangler, the small group consisted of a remarkably good cross-section of the local population: one student, a faculty couple (scientists), a pair of enthusiastic townies, aunt and niece, one of whom was a former restaurateur, and your correspondent. The objective was to introduce us to interesting and iconic downtown eateries, fleshed out by a walking tour and brief history of Ithaca’s downtown and Commons area.
Our tour began at the iconic vegetarian restaurant, Moosewood, where we were delighted to re-learn that there is no charge for street parking on Saturdays. Wraight, who had clearly done his homework, told us that the Moosewood collective, in business since 1973, has been composting for 40 years, which must be some sort of local restaurant record. The collective is also the recipient of three James Beard Awards, two for cookbooks and a third for best regional restaurant.
We sampled a couple of soups, and then the omnivores among us tasted an asparagus-feta fritter with a bright beet and lemon sauce, and the vegans enjoyed wasabi-edamame hummus with rice crackers. There was much getting-to-know-you conversation, and even a bit of plate sharing.
At another venue, gathered around a high table whose centerpiece was a Pirates of the Caribbean chess set, we gobbled down Panini sandwiches: vegan Reubens made with Susie’s Seitan, a Daiya cheese based in taro root, vegan mayo, the restaurant’s own coleslaw, and I think there was a tomato wedged in there somewhere. They were gooey and delicious.
After a brief explanation of the physics of ice-cream-making, we sampled frozen banana shakes made with cocoa powder, peanut butter, soy milk, agave syrup – they were cold, wet, filling, and sweet – a liquid Elvis special -- served with washable steel straws to curtail the amount of junk sent to the landfill. A walk to the next venue was peppered with local history and lore, and while most of us had been in town for awhile and thought we knew the place well, there were some surprising, well researched bits of information provided by Wraight.
We walked, stopped to eat, walked some more, stopped to eat and drink again, tasted some delicious foods – locally raised elk, ciders and beers, as well as high-end food components, had a tour of a state-of-the-art kitchen that had us all wanting one, and, of course, the icing on the cake was dessert at Madeline’s. In our 1.1-mile walk, we hoped to have walked off some of it, but we were pleasantly full. There is a wide variety of types of food, beginning with appetizers and heading through to dessert. And as we learned on the tour, special dietary needs can usually be accommodated, with pre-selected vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options at every stop.
Barden and Wraight also offer private tours for corporate team building, birthday parties, wedding parties, and university groups, and while the regular tour takes place on Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., they are willing to provide special tours during the week.
The couple, both area natives, met through their 4H activities as kids, and found themselves close by at college with a shared love of public service, food, and Ithaca, and the rest is history.
In their alternate lives, Wraight serves on the 4H Program Development Committee and is a community mentor for Ithaca High School’s Code Red Robotics (“It’s good to give back to programs that gave us so much,” he said), and is a manufacturing engineer at BorgWarner. Barden plays Ultimate Frisbee, is an organizer for Ithaca Area Ultimate Alliance, and, while she has done catering, resale, and gallery work, now works as a leasing consultant for an apartment complex. They are nothing if not well organized, enthusiastic, and personable, and they have done their homework.
As an added bonus, each member of the tour received a booklet with a discount coupon for each the establishments we visited. Their “storefront” is on line, so it’s easy to purchase tickets in advance. Wondering what to do with your out-of-town guests? Stuck for a Father’s Day, birthday, or anniversary gift? Want to see your hometown through new eyes? Check out their web site, www.ithacaisfoodies.com.